Drive the cold Winter away: the meaning of a 17th century seasonal song

Drive the cold Winter away is a 17th century broadside ballad which appeals to its readers, singers and listeners to put aside differences, forget old wrongs, and to sing, dance, eat, drink and play together.

As this article outlines, there was good reason for this appeal for a Christmas truce in the 17th century, a time of bitterly cold winters, religious division and civil war. After describing what a 17th century Christmas feast consisted of, we explore the two distinct melodies the song was sung to and outline its long-lived popularity.


A Pleasant Countrey new Ditty: Merrily shewing how To drive the cold Winter away neatly sums up the commonly-expressed ‘true spirit of Christmas’. When this broadside was published, winter was a much more deadly and dangerous season when the spirit of charity in England’s deeply unequal society could literally be a life-saver. This was especially so when this song was popular, as the 17th century was part of what climatologists call the little ice age, bringing significantly colder winters to parts of Europe and North America. In Britain and the Netherlands, canals and rivers were regularly frozen deeply enough to support ice skating and winter festivals, such that the first of many River Thames frost fairs was held in 1608, commemorated by the pamphlet The great frost: cold doings in London, possibly written by English dramatist Thomas Dekker (the title page of which heads this article). The author describes people of all ages and classes walking on the frozen Thames in large numbers, with traders quickly seizing their commercial opportunities: “Thirst you for Beere, Ale, or for victualls, there you may buy it, and you may tell another day that you dined on the Thames. Are you colde with going over? You shall, ere you come to the midst of the River, spie some ready with pannes of coals to warme your fingers. If you want fruite after you have dined, there stand Costermongers to serve you. And thus do people leave their houses and the streetes, turning the godliest River in the whole Kingdome into the broadest street to walke in.” However cold the temperature, the ice was not completely safe: “some have fallen in up to the knees, others to their middle, others to the arme-pittes, yea, and some have been ducked over head and eares, yet have crawled out like drowned Rats, while others have suncke to the bottome that never rose againe to the top, and they had a cold bed to lye in.” A total of 10 frost fairs were held during the 17th century, and 6 more in the 18th century. Such was the severity of cold that, during the mid-17th century, farms and whole villages in the Swiss Alps were destroyed by encroaching glaciers.

The great frost was printed for the publisher Henry Gosson, who flourished c. 1601–1640. Gosson also published Pericles, Prince of Tyre, in 1609, a play by William Shakespeare (perhaps co-authored), as well as the broadside ballads drive the cold Winter away and the musically related Come worldling see what paines I here do take, as we shall see.  

Hendrick Avercamp (1585–1634) specialised in depicting scenes of people on frozen water
in The Netherlands. This painting, Winter landscape near a city, 1620, shows the range of
activity that was possible due to the depth and stability of the frozen ice: large numbers of
people fishing; hunting; skating; gatherings in large tents; and horses pulling sleighs.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

Meaning and context

The Twelve Days of Christmas, which ended on the twelfth night after Christmas Day (the Eve of the Feast of Epiphany), was a twelve day chance to feast and celebrate before having to cut down on food for the hard winter months. Drive the cold Winter away describes the activities and the community spirit of the festive season in the late Elizabethan and Jacobean era: the revelry of shared carols and songs, eating and drinking, wassailing with “hot brown Ale”, masking and mumming, and decorating the house with greenery.

Click the picture to play the video.
The Night Watch perform Drive the cold Winter away at Artrix Arts Centre, 25th November 2017.
Ian Pittaway: bray harp. Andy Casserley: vocal, recorder.
The broadside, drive the cold Winter away, c. 1601–1640, showing the original 12 verses,
now in the Pepys collection of Magdalene College, Pepys Ballads 1.186-187. In the video above,
The Night Watch sing 4 representative verses. (As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)
The image above is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
It is taken from the excellent English Broadside Ballad Archive,
reference EBBA 20083, accessible by clicking here.

The 4 representative verses in the video, taken from the broadside’s original 12:

All hayle to the dayes, That merite more praise, then all the rest of the yeare:
And welcome the nights, That double delights, as well the poore as the Peere:
Good fortune attend, Each merry mans friend, that doth but the best that he may:
Forgetting old wrongs, With Carrols and Songs, to drive the cold winter away.

Tis ill for a mind, To anger inclind, to ruminate injuries now:
If wrath be to seeke, Do not let her thy cheeke, nor yet inhabite thy brow.
Crosse out of those bookes, Malevolent lookes, both beauty and youthes decay:
And spend the long night, In honest delight, to drive the cold winter away.

Thus none will allow, Of solitude now, but merrily greets the time:
To make it appeare, Of all the whole yeare, that this is accounted the Prime.
December is seene, Apparel’d in greene, and January fresh as May:
Comes dancing along, With a Cup and a Song, to drive the cold winter away.

To Maske and to Mum, Kind neighbours will come, with Wassels of hot brown Ale;
To drinke and carouse, To all in this house, as merry as Bucks in the pale:
Where Cake, Bread and Cheese, Is brought for your fees, to make you the longer stay:
At the fire to warme, Will do you no harme, to drive the cold winter away.

The maske or masque in the last verse refers to a festive courtly entertainment of the 16th and early 17th centuries, popular in the courts of Europe: music, dancing, singing and acting, within an elaborately designed staged setting and with flamboyant masks and costumes. Mumming, also in the last verse, is a non-courtly folk custom, the word deriving from masks and disguises. Mummers’ plays were seasonal folk theatre, sometimes performed in the street, more usually as house-to-house visits and in public houses. Mumming continues in the British Isles, often with stock characters such as Saint George, the dragon, the Turkish knight, the doctor, and Father Christmas.

Left: Mayday Mummers at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, County Down.
Right: St. Albans mummers.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

In 17th century homes there was no Christmas tree, a custom imported from Germany in the 19th century. Rather, a huge yule log was brought into the house, a custom imported from Germany in the 16th century, burning in the hearth for people to gather around. The house was decorated with greenery such as holly, ivy, rosemary and bay leaves as symbols of life; and the usual cheap tallow candles made from beef or mutton fat were replaced by the best beeswax candles, with best linen and glasses making a festive appearance. Once the yule log was brought in, people would toast each other with, as the ballad says, “Wassels of hot brown Ale”. This refers to the drink, wassail, a hot, mulled, spicy punch in a wassail bowl. The call of the toaster was ‘Wassail!’, a contraction of the Middle English phrase wæs hæil, meaning literally good health or be you healthy. To the toaster’s ‘Wassail!’, those present would respond, ‘Drink ale!’

Usquebath steeping. (Photograph from Game of Brews.)

Typical feasting food was goose or beef. Those who could afford it would cook the meat with expensive spices imported from the east, such as nutmeg and cinnamon. The well-off also accompanied their meat with a grand salad consisting of dried olives, almonds, chopped figs and currants, which were banned during the English Civil War as people spent so much money on importing them. This was covered with olive oil from the Mediterranean, then called salad oil, and sugar imported from Morocco. Sugar was the height of luxury, costing 6d a pound when labourers only earned 8d a day. Popular drinks were lamb’s wool, being beer mixed with apple, warmed by the fire, and usquebath or aqua vitae. Usquebath is an Anglicisation of the Gaelic uisge beatha which, like aqua vitae, means water of life. (The Gaelic name later evolved into the word, whiskey.) Usquebath consisted of any raw spirit mixed with liquorice, aniseed, and a mixture of herbs, stirred every day for 10 days then left for 3 days before drinking.

It is most likely that all but the bravest and most unyielding would have seen each other in church at Christmas, regardless of their religion or politics, since everyone was expected to go to church on feast days or else they’d be fined, an attempt by parliament to make sure there weren’t any Roman Catholics or radical Protestants dissenting and therefore threatening national security, as they saw it.

There was history behind this measure. The 16th century had seen King Henry VIII forcibly break the link between the English monarchy and the international Catholic Church, establishing the Church of England and setting the scene his persecution of Catholics. The anti-Catholic stance and policy was further reinforced in the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI. His daughter, Mary I, reinstated royally-authorised Catholicism, now with the persecution of Protestants. Henry’s other daughter, Elizabeth I, brought a Protestant truce of sorts, albeit marked by her excommunication by Pope Pius V in 1570 and a series of Catholic plots to dethrone her. Elizabeth’s death without an heir in 1603 led to the reign of Protestant James I of England (who was also James VI of Scotland), who survived an attempt on his life and all of parliament by Catholic gunpowder plotters only two years into his reign.

The 17th century brought more internecine strife: ultra-Protestant Puritans smashing Catholic iconography; legal punishment of Catholics and of Protestants who dissented from the Church of England (until the Act of Toleration, 1689, protected dissenting Protestants such as Baptists and English Presbyterians if they demonstrated allegiance to the crown – but this did not include Catholics); and the English Civil War, 1642–1651, was fought between royalist supporters of King Charles I, who had married a Catholic and acted internationally in support of Catholics and against Protestant interests, and parliamentarian Protestants led by the Puritan, Oliver Cromwell. Charles I was monarch of England, Scotland and Ireland, and the civil war affected all three kingdoms, populations divided along religious and political lines. Charles I was put on trial, accused by the English parliament of being a “tyrant, traitor and murderer … and public enemy”, and publicly beheaded on 30th January 1649. In 1653 Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector, his “Commonwealth of England” ruled by a reduced Rump Parliament, which came to a slow end following Cromwell’s death in 1658 since his son, Richard, proved incompetent and resigned in 1659. Into this chaos and political disarray, in 1660 Charles I’s son, Charles II, returned from exile in The Hague, Netherlands, and restored the English, Scottish and Irish monarchies.  

Left to right:
Charles I, who reigned 1625–49;
Oliver Cromwell, who ruled 1653–58;
Charles II, who reigned 1660–85.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

The song, then, is about putting differences aside, all classes and types of people celebrating, eating, drinking, singing and playing together. It is a cheery and idealised vision of the Christmas season, similar to the appeal for Yuletide togetherness we give and receive every year now. Also similar to today’s appeals, this song of Christmas celebration at no point makes any reference to Christ, the Christmas story, or the church, only to harmonious co-existence. Perhaps this is as well, even deliberate. This was a period of competing Christs with contradictory commandments for his followers. It is not surprising, then, that drive the cold Winter away avoids any mention of divisive religion or politics, only urging its singers, readers and hearers to unite, regardless of class, “as well the poore as the Peere”, and regardless of political allegiance, “Forgetting old wrongs”.

Melody and popularity

The title page of the 1600 reprint of Ane Compendious Booke of Godly and Spirituall Songs, originally published in 1567.

Drive the cold Winter away may have an antecedent. Dundee brothers John, James and Robert Wedderburn published a book in 1567, Ane Compendious Booke of Godly and Spirituall Songs collected out of sundrie partes of the Scripture, with sundrie of other Ballates changed out of prophaine sanges, for avoyding of sinne and harlotrie, with augmentation of sundrie gude and godlie Ballates not contenit in the first editioun. In other words, their publication took secular songs they considered sinful and changed the words for a godly purpose. The title refers to a first edition, but the previous book or any reference to it, including a date, has not survived. The extant 1567 edition includes a song with the same metre as drive the cold Winter away and a similar refrain:

The wind blawis cauld, furius & bauld,
This lang and mony day;
But Christis mercy, we man all die,
Or keip the cauld wind away.

This connection is not certain but, if the conjecture is true, some version of the song that became drive the cold Winter away must predate its holy reworking in 1567.

The 17th century broadside, first published between 1601 and 1640, enjoyed long-lived popularity, going into multiple prints, with selected verses appearing in Thomas d’Urfey’s Wit and Mirth: Or Pills to Purge Melancholy, published from 1698 to 1720, and the melody was used as a dance tune until 1740. By this time, though, the song had changed its tune.

The broadside states that it is to be sung To the tune of, When Phoebus did rest, &c. This is not the melody used in the video above, to which we will soon return, but that of a song beginning “When Phoebus addres’d [or had drest] his course to the West”, printed in the song anthologies Wit and Drollery, edited by Sir John Mennes and James Smith, 1656, and in Merry Drollery, 1661, collected by the anonymised W. N., C. B., R. S. and J. G. This song has the refrain “O do not, do not kill me yet / For I am not prepared to dye”, and is the same music published in Jan Jansz Starter’s earlier Friesche Lust-Hof, 1621, titled O doe not, doe not kil me yet for I am not &c. This, then, is the original music intended for the broadside. The melody is as follows (sung by Ian Pittaway):


As was usual on broadsides, the same tune was used for multiple ballads. Following is the first verse of a broadside published for Henry Gosson, c. 1601–1640, Come worldling see what paines I here do take, to be sung, as stated on the print, “To the tune of, To drive the cold winter away”. In other words, the broadside, drive the cold Winter away, became so popular that its tune, When Phoebus did rest, &c., took on the title of the broadside, a common process for tune titles of 17th century prints.

The broadside, Come worldling see what paines I here do take, c. 1601–1640,
now in the British Library, Roxburghe 1.40–41 (shelfmark C.20.f.7.40-41).
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)
The image and soundfile above are licensed under a Creative Commons License.
They are taken from the excellent English Broadside Ballad Archive, accessible by clicking here.

At some point before 1651, a quite different melody was known by the same title, and appeared as Drive the Cold Winter away in every edition of John Playford’s Dancing Master from 1651 to 1728, a hugely popular manual giving the choreography and melodies of social dances. This alternative tune also appeared in the same John Playford’s Musick’s Delight on the Cithren, 1666, and in John Walsh’s The Compleat Country Dancing-Master, 1740, and is that used by The Night Watch in the video which illustrates this article.

The music and dance steps for Drive the cold Winter away as it appears in
the first edition of John Playford’s Dancing Master (called The English
Dancing Master in the first edition only), published in 1651.

Forgetting old wrongs, With Carrols and Songs, to drive the cold winter away

It is easy to be cynical about the song’s message that we should be “Forgetting old wrongs, With Carrols and Songs, to drive the cold winter away”, since each Christmas we hear the same message of common humanity, of peace to the world, and each year the world continues warring regardless. We all know that words are not enough and, as we have seen, the ballad buyers of the 17th century certainly knew the reality of civil strife, division and bloodshed. For a personal, face to face starting point to create that better, more harmonious world, the practical wisdom of the second of the four chosen verses is possibly as good a place to start as any:  

Tis ill for a mind, To anger inclind, to ruminate injuries now:
If wrath be to seeke, Do not let her thy cheeke, nor yet inhabite thy brow.
Crosse out of those bookes, Malevolent lookes, both beauty and youthes decay:
And spend the long night, In honest delight, to drive the cold winter away.


© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.

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